Judge rules James can return to play

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 6, 2003

AKRON -- LeBron James got back his eligibility, a gift more valuable than any trendy jersey.

James learned he can play through the rest of the regular season Wednesday after a judge issued a temporary restraining order to block a suspension by state officials against the Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary senior for accepting two sports jerseys worth $845 from a store.

Summit County Common Pleas Judge James R. Williams also said the 18-year-old superstar must sit out one more game and will have his eligibility examined again at a hearing Feb. 19.

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''We believe the court order and the argument we presented confirmed that the ineligibility ruling should have never occurred in the first place,'' James' attorney Fred Nance said. ''There is relief that LeBron is going to be able to finish what he started, trying to win a state championship and playing to be the No. 1 basketball team in the country.''

Williams granted the temporary injunction against the Ohio High School Athletic Association's ruling last week that James had violated an amateur bylaw.

Williams said James, expected to be the top overall pick in this year's NBA draft, would suffer ''immediate and irreparable injury'' without the order.

St. Vincent-St. Mary was allowed to decide what game James will miss, and it picked the one against Toledo Scott on Feb. 23, four days after the hearing where Williams will consider a request for a permanent injunction.

If the judge rules for the OHSAA, James would be ineligible to compete in the state tournament that begins later this month.

James already missed one game after Clair Muscaro, commissioner of the athletic association, ruled Friday that James broke the amateur bylaw ''by capitalizing on athletic fame by receiving money or gifts of monetary value.''

The association found that a Cleveland clothing store gave James the Gale Sayers and Wes Unseld retro jerseys in exchange for James posing for pictures to be displayed on its walls.

The Fighting Irish, No. 1 in the USA Today rankings for the fourth straight week, have four games left before the playoffs. They play Saturday in Trenton, N.J.

''I look forward to getting the final hearing behind us so that LeBron can focus entirely on his schoolwork, basketball and his friends, just like any other teenager, as much as possible,'' said James' mother, Gloria.

Lawyers for the athletic association and James presented their arguments to the judge during a one-hour hearing.

''He wants to finish what he started,'' Nance told the judge. ''He didn't want to let himself down. He didn't want to let his team down. He didn't want to let his school down.''

Nance pointed out that James could have taken advantage of his celebrity long ago. Nike, Adidas and other companies are in a bidding war for the 6-foot-8 star, often compared to a young Michael Jordan.

''If he was about capitalizing on his fame, he would have been in Los Angeles or New York last weekend signing multimillion-dollar contracts instead of sitting on the bench,'' Nance said.

Nance accused Muscaro of not properly investigating before ruling. The lawyer said James was given the jerseys by a store employee, Joseph Hawthorn, as a reward for making the honor roll.

Hawthorn is a friend of Eddie Jackson, James' father figure who is serving a three-year sentence for mortgage and mail fraud.

Athletic association lawyer Steven Craig disagreed with Nance's assertions and said James should have known better than to accept the jerseys for free.

The association's ruling Friday came four days after it cleared James for accepting a $50,000 sport utility vehicle as an 18th birthday gift from his mother.

Craig argued that although James is a special basketball player, he doesn't have special privileges.

He concluded his remarks by quoting a line from the movie ''Spiderman.''

''With great power comes great responsibility,'' the lawyer said. ''LeBron James, through his athletic ability, his charisma and the like, has amassed considerable power, and with that, considerable responsibility.''